Books

{Book Review} What Hell May Come by Rex Hurst

In the early 1980’s a wave of panic rippled through the United States as rumors of Satanic cults spread throughout fundamentalist sects of Christianity. Dungeons and Dragons, heavy metal music, and science fiction were suddenly demonized as gateways into Satanism. Dozens of books were written telling allegedly true tales of child abuse at the hands of these Satanists.

The problem, as it usually is with such outlandish tales, was that none it was true. While Satanism is a real religion, it is hardly the all-powerful group of hedonistic rapists they were alleged to be. But imagine, if you will, that the satanic panic of 1980’s was all true. The rituals, the blood sacrifice, the vast underground network of cultists, imagine all of it was real. This is the premise of the book What Hell May Come by author Rex Hurst.


The premise alone is already problematic, and yet the actual book manages to be even more uncomfortable than its unfortunate premise.

Set in an American town ravaged by poverty during the 1980’s, What Hell May Come is focused on a young man named Jon. Jon’s only respite from his abusive family is playing Dungeons and Dragons with his three friends Michael, Louis, and Kathy. Jon’s world is upended when he discovers that his parents are involved with a cult and have been drugging him to use his unconscious body in rituals. By the end, a demon has been summoned, friendships have been ended, and countless teenagers are both abused and abusive.

It is tempting to call the book nihilistic. The world of What Hell May Come is certainly dark enough to warrant nihilism. If there is one thing you can say about the book, it is that it fully commits to its premise. The ritualistic violence and sex are described in as much gratuitous detail as possible for a book that is ostensibly not porn.

Maybe these scenes would have been shocking if the book was released in the year it was set, 1986, but in 2020 it is all just so unnecessary. The media landscape of today is completely different now than the media landscape of the 1980’s. Part of the appeal of the books that inspired What Hell May Come is that the sex, violence, and drug abuse they depicted were so rarely seen in mainstream media. Movies and T.V. shows were often suggestive, but rarely as salacious as these supposedly true stories of satanic abuse.

In the present year though? Shows with excessive violence and sex are the norm. Game Of Thrones with all its beheadings and brothels became one of the most talked about shows of all time. Nothing depicted in What Hell May Come is any worse than what you can see on HBO.

Not that its sex or violence needed to be heinous, but the book really wants you to think it is. Multiple pages are devoted to Jon secretly watching his mother and father have rough sex with a stranger. Descriptions of ritual sacrifice emphasize the blood and gore. These scenes end up more tiring than disgusting.

The worst part of it all is that none of it moves the plot forward. It is all just things that happen. The events are often traumatic to Jon, and perhaps that would be enough to justify their presence in the novel. Showing how a real person would react to the outlandish rituals of these cartoon cultists could be compelling, but Jon is a difficult character to care about.

Jon has no redeeming qualities. It is not just that he is morally bankrupt, it is that he is not even particularly good at anything. He is not kind, smart, or charismatic and his thoughts are never particularly insightful.

Characters do not need to be any of these things to be compelling but having one positive trait or skill would certainly help. Worse than any of that though, is that Jon does not care about much. He hates his family. He hates the town he lives in. He likes his friends and roleplaying with them, but rarely thinks about them before himself. When his Dungeons and Dragons sessions are interrupted by the book’s supernatural events, it does not bother Jon much at all. The one thing Jon cares about is a shallow crush on an attractive girl that readers already know will not end well.

The only real reason to care about Jon is that he is a victim of abuse. His mother and younger sister verbally degrade him while his father completely ignores him. These scenes depicting abuse are the few moments where you genuinely feel for Jon and his struggle. Unfortunately, these scenes are often followed by Jon abusing others.

Jon crosses an irredeemable line early in the story. His older sister is a drug addict and spends much of the novel strung out on the family’s couch, barely conscious. At one point, for no apparent reason, Jon sticks a hot dog in her mouth to make her think she is fellating one of her boyfriends.

Having your main character commit sexual assault on his sister in one of the first chapters is certainly a choice. It is perhaps not a terribly good one.

At another point in the story he and his friend summon a demon and command it to hurt a bully. The demon gives the bully HIV. When Jon learns about this, he feels a little bad about it and then the event is mentioned once or twice in passing.

There are brief moments where Jon thinks that maybe the things he has done are bad, but they are so inconsequential and never amount to anything. Jon never apologizes to the people he has hurt, he never attempts to help them, and he never comes to a deeper understanding about any the people hurt by his actions. All of this points to larger problems with the novel.

Jon’s perspective is almost never challenged. His reductive view of everyone around him is only ever proven right. His sister is exactly the kind of worthless drug addict he thinks she is. The girls at his school sleep around exactly as much as he thinks they do. Even learning that his parents are in a cult never feels all that shocking. They were already awful people, now they are just awful people who happen to be in a cult.

Everything about the book is just so angry. Anger in fiction can be great. Righteous fury can be compelling to read or watch. It needs to have a focus though. The anger of What Hell May Come is the anger of its protagonist. It is a novel which is angry at everyone and often indulges in that anger to a fault.

In a better novel that anger could be part of the point, that Jon’s perspective is wrong and that he needs to grow up. Maybe that novel would not be good, but it would at least have something of value to offer. This novel has none of that. Instead it is just as sexist and judgmental as its protagonist. All of it has had as little thought put into it as the premise.

What Hell May Come opens by asking what would happen if the satanic panic was real? It is a question that the book never really gets around to answering beyond, “it would be bad.” This book fails to say anything interesting about the satanic panic and what it meant for our culture.
           

Looking back, it is very easy to view the satanic panic as goofy. It is tempting to see all of it as a harmless crusade against heavy metal and role-playing games.

In reality, people were arrested for crimes they didn’t commit and kept imprisoned for decades. Children were beaten or verbally abused for playing Dungeons and Dragons. LGBTQ folk were tortured in conversion therapy as a direct result of the satanic panic radicalizing moderate Christians.

The satanic panic caused real lasting damage. It ruined lives. To imagine it as real, feels like justification for all that abuse.

Even if every other issue with What Hell May Come was fixed, this single problem would overshadow any other merit the book might have. Luckily, it is such a mean-spirited book that you will not be missing out so maybe skip this one.

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